It took me a long time to seek help, so it took me a long time to put a name to what I had been feeling for several years. I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder years ago, and when I thought maybe the doctors were wrong, I was diagnosed again by two more doctors. Even after all this time, learning how to manage my symptoms, and developing my relationship with therapy and medication, it’s still hard for me to talk about my invisible passenger. My anxiety disorder rides in my car. She comes with me to work. She watches me care for my children, and gives me unsolicited advice. She sleeps in the bed with my husband and I, and she chimes in on our arguments.
Very few people see my anxiety, even though it’s ever-present and impacts every relationship I am in. Occasionally she separates me from my friends and family. She sleeps, and she rages. Sometimes I’m so used to it that I don’t realize when she’s awake until after we are already wrapped in the suffocating, thick blanket of worry. There are a few things that I wish to explain to people fortunate enough to have relationships with me and people like me…
There are times when I have felt like my struggles are imaginary. I feel like a hypochondriac because everyone worries and its not a disorder. Everyone has fears. Doesn’t everyone feel stressed? I minimize what I am going through because when I think of mental illness, I think of psych wards and suicidal ideation and incoherent rants. I think of things that prohibit people from being gainfully employed or living a “normal” life. Doesn’t everyone have episodes where heat seems to radiate from inside of them, causing uncontrollable sweat because they cannot remember the name of the special crackers that they wanted for the guests that are coming over tomorrow? You know how the more you tell yourself to just pick a cracker because no one cares about the damn crackers, the more the tightness spreads through your chest. As you imagine that the guests hate the crackers you picked your stomach turns and the bile rises in your throat. That feeling when you remember the name of the special crackers, but a new worry invades the mind about having the right cheese for these crackers and the tension builds like a wild energy inside of your body and your limbs feel like they are going to blow off your body, although you know that won’t happen because that’s ludicrous; as all of this is ludicrous and now you’re on the verge of crying in the grocery store so you drop the box of crackers and leave before anyone can see the first tear fall. Now you have no crackers and your breathing is shallow and you drive away imagining you’ll pass out behind the wheel, accidentally killing yourself and other innocent bystanders. No? That’s the difference between my worry and yours. That’s why I need help.
I am fully aware how ridiculous my worries are. Something as simple as making a phone call to schedule an appointment is difficult for me. I’m not lazy, my anxiety causes me to become crippled with indecision about schedules and worry about medical treatments to the point of doing nothing because I can’t get out of my ruminations. Reminding me that there is nothing to worry about, or that I am stressing over nothing is never helpful. A part of the disorder is that I can’t stop my cycle of anxiousness, even though I know there is no clear and present danger. I am already scolding myself inside as the panic attack builds. I am yelling at myself like a disapproving mother from the 1950s with my perfect dress and expertly made martini, and my invisible passenger has just come in and embarrassed me in front of my friends. Only those friends never even knew she was friggin’ there at all. You cannot snap me out of it by being hard on me because I’ve got that in spades on my own. If I had a dollar for every time I looked in the mirror and said, “Get your shit together,” my therapy bills would be paid. If I happen to let you know that I am not ok at the moment, just be with me. Just tell me that it’s ok that I’m not ok right now. Offer me a drink. Just one or two. It helps. My therapist says that alcohol basically does to the brain what the medications for anxiety disorders do. I don’t know how scientific that is but any professional advice that involves a drink seems legit to me. Unfortunately, this is why depression, anxiety, and substance abuse often go together like mac and cheese. Without education on mental health and access to mental health professionals, many people struggling with depression and anxiety self-medicate. This is why it’s important to have these conversations.
Lack of a plan can send me off the rails. Yes, I know I can annoy people around me by over-planning and trying to control every outcome. That’s because I have thought of a hundred things that can go wrong, and I’m still anxious because I know there are two-hundred more things that I haven’t had time to think of yet. I think of the worst possible scenario in an effort to calm my anxiety. I believe if I have planned for everything then that’s less of a chance I can be sent into a tailspin that I wasn’t prepared for. This is why I pack for my kids like they are going on a 6 month voyage to a remote location where there are no drug stores or modern conveniences. I make a list and start packing days in advance. Invariably, in the last few hours before we leave I am stuffing every random thing we have ever used in every crevice of the luggage because I just know this will be the off-occasion that I will need it. It rarely ever works, but that doesn’t stop me from doing it every single time. I end up needing only a fraction of the crap I packed, and find that I could have used the 2% of junk that I left at home because I ran out of room in the bags. Just writing about packing is literally twisting that space beneath my sternum and making me want to vomit.
There are many methods for managing the symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and my journey is ever-changing. A technique that helped me last year may not be providing the same relief today. It may work next month. There are some things that I know work consistently, but some days my mind and body just does not want to do those things. Sometimes I wrap myself up in my anxiety because I am just used to her. There are days that it’s too hard to fight her. Sometimes I don’t triumph over the direction she’s pulling me in, and she becomes the driver instead of the nagging passenger. The battle for control gets exhausting. Have you ever tried to keep 3 feral cats inside of a box? I have, actually. Long story for another time. No cats were harmed in the making of that story. Managing my anxiety can feel a lot like that. Holding one worry down as it claws at my flesh. Another arm reaching about for a fear that is on the loose, but I can’t see where it’s going. Using my foot to fold over a flap of the box so my mangled hand can reach for the fear that just bit me on the ass. They’re all hissing at me and baring their teeth. As I somehow manage to slide the third into the box, a paw bursts through the opening, startling me, and knocking the box on its side as they all run free. I sit on the floor next to the empty box, with feral cats running around taking pisses on all the parts of my life that used to be in order. I don’t always win.
A smile doesn’t always mean it’s a good day. My anxiety doesn’t raise its hand and answer the roll call. It’s not a dark cloud over me, soaking my hair and clothes for all to see. I feel her bubbling up and I paint on a happy face and pray that no one else can see her through the hairline fractures in the porcelain mask of self-confidence. It may be that when I seem the most jovial that I am the most afraid you can see my weaknesses. Those may be the times when I go home and wipe off the faux face that has worn down throughout the day into a thin film, barely clinging to my skin. The nights when I curl into myself in the dark and allow my heart to slam against my chest as every thought of doom and disaster and death takes over, tearing through my body until I am emotionally spent and collapse into sleep. It’s an isolating and lonely thing to not be able to say when you’re not ok. It tears me apart to say it out loud when I am struggling, because I’m supposed to be stronger than that, although I don’t know why. Even when I am aching inside I can’t form the words to express it. It usually comes out as, “I’ll be fine,” which is a big step for me in years of dealing with my issues. It’s a far cry from, “I am fine.” The steel frame I built around me wasn’t healthy. When there was an obvious circumstance that anyone would be terribly worried about, I had forgotten how to express my pain because I was so used to wearing my masks. I have a new answer in difficult times when people ask me, “are you ok?” I’m pretending to be ok. Please do not interrupt my performance. I’m learning to find peace and release in vulnerability, but it isn’t easy.
It’s hard for me to allow people in to the world happening behind the many masks that I wear. My invisible passenger is always with me. It’s a shadow that fades in and out as the sun rises and sets on my life. She is a dour companion that I learn to live with, because that skank isn’t leaving no matter how much I beg her to go. I’ve gotten better at driving the car, and at least buckling her into the backseat, but be patient with me in the moments that bitch calls “shotgun” and hops in the front. If you identify with anything you’ve read here, I stand with you. I see you and encourage you to seek therapy if you haven’t already. If you live with someone that is like me, we thank you for your indulgences.